by John Vercher, the SNHU MFA Student Contest Winner
Our father, Elroy Winston, had been a running back at Westinghouse High, on track for a full ride to wherever he wanted until a free safety bent his knee backwards, shredding everything inside. Pictures of his glory days littered the living room of our two-story row home on Forest Way. The centerpiece: his offensive line, shirtless after a sweltering summer practice. Normal boys tripped over their own feet into masculinity. Not my father. Flanked by his linemen, he was carved obsidian, his puffed-out natural indented by the padding inside the battle-scarred helmet that dangled from his hand.
But shoulder met knee and his armor betrayed him and all those who placed in him their hopes for a Winston to go to college. Grandpap, hardened like the molten steel he cooled in the massive water tanks, told Elroy he had until the long-leg cast came off to find a job or a place to live. Time came, and father and son worked side by side in steam and ash, forging the beams and girders of a city that drove black men
Hours of standing, squatting, bending and lifting wore Elroy’s joints. On Sundays, while Grandpap gave praise and sipped grape juice at Carrone Baptist, our father took his communion at the 7101 Lounge, alternating Heinekens and Hennesseys. Over the play-by-play of a Jim Fink hand-off to Fran Rogel up the middle, he’d shout about how white boys had no footwork and always got caught in the backfield or took unnecessary hits. He’d try to pick fights with the white patrons, once emboldened by their numbers, now emasculated by the steady influx of blacks driven by the Gateway Center he’d helped build. But he found no satisfaction. Not until he went home to Mama.
Elroy Winston and Althea Francis were high school sweethearts. Mama grew into her pretty name, red-boned. Even in the dulled sepia tones of her yearbook pictures, her eyes shimmered like cut stones. She stayed with Elroy, after the injury, after graduation, after the hardness in his legs softened, the striations faded, and the tender parts of his heart mineralized. While he cooked in the heat of smelted alloys she attended the University of Pittsburgh’s nursing program, the first woman in her family who didn’t end up a child bride. The news of my older brother Trevor’s imminent arrival came at the end of her sophomore year. It didn’t stop the post-game beatings, which were vicious after a Steeler’s loss. It wasn’t until they thought they lost Trevor, when he broke Mama’s nose, blacked her eyes, that he left the congregation of the Tavern, bought a blazer and a bowtie and got right with God. I arrived three years after.
Trevor inherited our father’s physique, his corner turn on a sweep, his silver tongue. As we came up through high school, I’d watch Trevor hold court in the cafeteria the same way Elroy did at a church breakfast. Athletes, cheerleaders, dope fiends and bookworms sat at rapt attention as he proselytized about nothing of any substance. He’d pick at his Afro, flash his alabaster smile, and the people were his. I wanted to hate him.
I arrived early and underweight, high-yellow and wheezing. While Trevor benched plastic concrete-filled weights in our musty basement, I sat at the foot of the steps, sucking an inhaler, counting his reps and reading Mama’s old nursing textbooks. He protected me from bullies, including Elroy, who neither understood my bookishness nor had any desire to understand it. I once asked him to sign a note to get me out of the mile run in gym class. He mocked me at the dinner table for not being Trevor, once stumbling over my name. Trevor would divert his insults with talk of the Steeler’s chances in the playoffs and shoot me a wink while he and Elroy lost themselves in schedules and statistics. Mama and I shared half-hearted, commiserative smiles.
At the end of his first season, Trevor won the “Best Freshman Athlete” award at a ceremony in the city. By sophomore year, he was co-captain and broke the school rushing record. He and Elroy were inseparable. Trevor pursued our father’s approval with the same relentless drive with which he sought the painted turf of the end-zone. He never missed services, stayed away from the white girls, loved his mama and barely passed his classes. I made honor roll every quarter, was student council vice president. My father and I were strangers. The night Trevor brought home his plaque, in the room we shared, I told Trevor I started praying to him since Elroy seemed sure he was the Second Coming. He warned me to never let our father hear me say that.
One afternoon, during the off-season of his junior year, Trevor smacked me on the shoulder and challenged me to our ritual race to the house from the corner where the bus dropped us. Though he always let me win, I didn’t argue. The sidewalk was littered with broken beer bottles, shards of glass held together by their adhesive labels. The stoops, once the domain of neighborhood old-heads on lawn chairs, grumbling their disapproval regarding just about anything, became the purview of drug dealers and their muscle. Trevor’s races gave us an excuse to run home. We never had to tell each other we were afraid.
That afternoon, I won. On all previous occasions, Trevor would fade the last few strides, letting me reach our steps by inches ahead of him. But even over the pounding of my pulse in my ears, I could hear the strange absence of his footfalls. I slowed to a stop and turned to see him gulping shallow breaths, hands on his knees, twenty yards back. I jogged back to him, past the pushers and junkies, carnivores in high grass watching a stray gazelle come up lame. Trevor felt it, too, waving me off when I went to help him stand, laughing for show, as much for me as for them. It was the downtime in the off-season, he said. Had to step up his game was all. No more rest on Sundays.
College scouts came to Trevor’s senior homecoming game. It wasn’t a matter of whether a university was going to recruit him, but which he was going to choose. Slow off the snap, he was tackled in the backfield countless times. With each hit, he stood up slower, pushing away the hands of his teammates, then clapping his own in frustration. Mama and Elroy were on their feet every time he got the ball, and sunk back into the bleachers in defeat with every failed play. It must be the pressure, Elroy said. I knew different. Trevor hadn’t told them about what was happening to him, and after a week of lost street races and breathless trips up the steps to our bedroom, made me promise not to either. I begged him to let me.
“He’s living through you,” I said.
“Before I started playing ball,” Trevor said, “you know how he talked to me.”
“Like he does to me?” I asked.
“Whatever this is,” he said, “let Dad have this time.”
During the third quarter, Trevor found himself in trouble behind the line of scrimmage again, but a juke left a charging lineman wobbling, and a spin move off the shoulders of a linebacker left him with an open-field run. My parents and I leapt to our feet, along with the rest of the crowd. Trevor ran so fast, he reached terminal velocity and glided, untouched by the pursuers who fell over each other like crashing surf. Those who didn’t collapse gave up the hunt with their heads raised to the sky, shoulders heaving for air, hands on their hips as they jogged to a stop.
Trevor was ten yards from the end-zone when he crumpled in a heap, collapsed from the inside by something unseen. His momentum slid him helmet first into the end zone, and the referees threw up their arms, nearly knocking themselves backwards, cheeks puffed like Gillespie as they signaled his touchdown. No one cheered. Fans on both sides of the field stood in the bleachers, some in attitudes of prayer, fingers pressed to their lips. Trevor lay writhing on the field.
The doctors called it a crisis, brought on by the blockage of blood to the joints by Trevor’s sickle-shaped red blood cells. The physician gave the okay for visitors. I ran down the hall ahead of my parents and stood in the doorway of his room. He was pale. His thick chest rose and fell. There were opiates weaving their way amongst his deformed corpuscles. Why him? Why was this the one roll of the dice he lost? Why
I sniffed and he woke up. He smiled big, his apple cheeks pushing up under his eyes. I hugged him like a frightened child. He kissed the top of my head and told me it didn’t hurt anymore. The doctor appeared in the doorway. I stood, wiped my eyes with the heel of my hands, wiped them on my pants and extended my hand to thank him for relieving my brother’s pain. He hesitated. My first thought was that it was because I was black, but when I looked closer, I saw his hesitation came from embarrassment. He didn’t want to be thanked for doing his job. I knew then that I wanted to be a physician.
Trevor finished his senior year on the bench, taking the elevator to his second floor classes and leaning on me to get to our bedroom. His grades got worse. The crises came more often and he walked the stage to receive his diploma, and standing ovation, with a cane. The races from the bus stop became slow walks, and I’d started lifting weights in the basement in the hopes I’d put on enough size to defend him from the colony of parasites that lined the block, multiplying monthly. I’d wake some nights to the sounds of his legs dragging back and forth in his bed, his face a mask of pain, his sheets stuck to his body with sweat.
He dropped out of the Community College of Allegheny County before the end of the first semester. I started classes at Pitt on a full academic scholarship. I wanted to defer, to stay home to help Trevor, but he insisted I get out of the house, out of the neighborhood. I shared a dorm room with a complete stranger who didn’t snore, who didn’t moan in his sleep, and I found I couldn’t sleep with the stillness. I often thought about calling Trevor to tell him to leave the phone off the hook so I could hear him. More than once I picked up the phone, but in place of a dial tone, I heard Elroy’s voice dismissing the femininity of it all. Our phone conversations, once every other day, dwindled to weekly. We never talked for long, but each time was about how he and Elroy barely spoke. How his pain medication wasn’t working anymore. How he stayed with friends more than he went home. Each time he promised to call, and each time the span between calls increased until they stopped altogether. I bought a pair of earplugs so the rushing sound of blood in my ears drowned out the maddening silence. Deep sleep eluded me for months.
At Mama’s request, I showed up early to Sunday services to mingle in the atrium. Trevor hadn’t shown up in over a month. Each week, she tried to fix me up with one neighborhood friend’s daughter or another, oblivious to the fact that when they left us alone to talk, they usually found me too much of a Tom. They were a little too hood for me. I’d pretend to listen while I filtered out the noise to hear the other parishioners chatter about the legend of Trevor’s fall. About how he couldn’t keep a job. About how he’d gotten hooked on one drug or another, or all of them. Some person or another saw him panhandling. Yet another saw him on the trails in Schenley Park with other men. Yet whenever they noticed me, the chinwaggers in their big hats and shark suits silenced their unsubtle whispers and donned masks of insincerity, their smiles tight, their embraces disingenuous. These godly people.
We attended services together the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Necks twisted and craned throughout the sermons as the congregation looked back at the three of us, then turned back to each other, snakes’ tongues flitting in each other’s ear, when Trevor was nowhere to be seen. Mama prayed with increased fervor. Elroy endured the stares and rumors with electric stillness, humming with potential energy. When the service ended, he stood without hesitation and walked out of the church. Mama and I, left to our own devices, fabricated excuses for both of them. When the sea of gossip mongers parted, we found Elroy in the Buick, engine running, staring straight ahead.
Dinner was quiet. The smells of fried catfish and black-eyed peas brought no comfort. I pushed at my food with my fork. The tines scraped the pearled ceramic. Elroy tore at a biscuit and chased it with cognac. I looked across the table to Mama. She took bird-like bites and broke the silence to ask how classes were going when the front door opened. Elroy looked up from his glass of Hennessey. Trevor’s clothes, once form fitting, hung from him like loose flesh, and his skin clung to his bones. He slid back the chair next to me and sat, his head bowed, his eyes darting back and forth. His light blue jeans were darkened by a layer of grime and he smelled like neglect. He removed his knit hat and scratched between his short twisted dreads.
Trevor ate with a vagrant’s voracity, like it had been days since his last meal, and I wondered if it maybe it had been. He mopped with a biscuit. I swallowed hard, took his empty plate and went to the kitchen for seconds. Elroy watched me until I couldn’t see him behind me, but I knew his eyes were on me the entire way. My hand trembled, the beans sliding off the spoon back into the pot and splattering on the range. I walked back to the table and set another heaping plate in front of Trevor. I sat next to him and looked to Elroy, who seemed to be fighting a smirk. Trevor ate. Mama bit her lower lip and thanked me with wet eyes. Trevor sat back, his plate empty again. Elroy downed the last swallow of cognac and stood. The back of his chair smacked the hardwood floor.
“Get out of my house and don’t ever come back,” he said.
Trevor pushed back from the table and walked towards the door while Elroy limped to the kitchen and threw his plate in the sink.
He never did return. Every Sunday I’d show up at church early, kiss Mama on the cheek, nod to Elroy and suffer the whispered indignities for Trevor in his absence. I’d return home with my parents. Elroy and I would share the living room and nothing else while we watched the football games in absolute silence. Once in a while, a botched play would infuriate him enough to lean forward from the recliner, smiling and talking run patterns and pass protection until he stopped himself, realizing I wasn’t Trevor.
Winter turned to spring, and still nothing. I laid awake nights in the relative silence of my dorm room, hoping for the phone to ring. A select few of the church congregants my age also went to the university, and rumor persisted of him on or around campus, or in Schenley Park, trading favors for drugs. I gave them my dorm room number and told them if they saw him, give it to him, tell him to call me. They looked at me with equal parts pity and guilt, feeling sorry for me for believing their lies. I gave them the number anyway and continued to hope. The phone never rang.
Spring to fall to winter. Mama filled the vacuum of silence during Sunday dinners with small talk of classes, grades, weather, and church. Elroy ate his food with automaton precision, washed it down with Hennesey and retired back to the living room without a word spoken. I’d help Mama with the dishes, kiss her on the cheek and head for the door. Each time she’d whisper in my ear.
“If Trevor should call,” she said.
“I will, Mama,” I said.
Finals week before winter break, I walked with a group of friends from the dorms, through the quadrangle, towards the Cathedral of Learning. The air bit when the wind picked up and we turned our heads when a gust burned our eyes and dried our nostrils. Flurries hung in the air, illuminated by columns of lights from the base of the Cathedral, an obelisk that sprung from the center of campus, and we trod towards the steps by the lion’s head fountain.
A man lay at the foot of the steps. We went single file to walk past him and I brought up the rear. He mumbled something incoherent under his breath that stopped me where I stood. I waved my friends on and kneeled in front of him. He sat with his knees pulled to his face, folded in on himself to shield against the cold, rocking on the bones of his hips. He wore fingerless gloves, the long nails of his black, ashy fingers lined with dirt, and held a Big Gulp cup full of change that chimed with each shiver. He held court and spoke of things only his invisible cabinet could understand. A godless house is the penalty of law and for these things we’ll answer to them. In between his declarations, he’d shift his hips and moan as if in pain. I tilted my head to look at his face, the bottom half hidden by his crossed arms.
“Trevor?” I asked. He didn’t answer. He rocked faster. His ramblings went on. If I had found him, I could bring him home. But to what? To medications that no longer worked? To Elroy? To my mother, who feared her husband too much to stand between them? It’s not him, I told myself. There’s no way he’d fallen so far, so fast. He would have just come home, like he did that Sunday night. He would have asked for help.
I pulled off a glove with my teeth and dug into my front pocket. I took out a twenty dollar bill, put it in the cup, and started up the steps. From behind, I heard his voice again
"Thank you, brother," he said.
I walked up the steps to the Cathedral.